04/05/2018 – Trends in Trade / Social Media / Social Influencers
The new rules of engagement
The irrepressible rise of the social media brand ambassador
The world’s precocious ‘social influencers’ are using YouTube, Facebook and the like to grow highly lucrative businesses. With influencer marketing now said to be growing faster than digital ads, such online stars might offer many brands their best opportunity to reach Millennial and Gen Z audiences.
Rebecca Anne Flint (a.k.a. ‘Beckii Cruel’) is a YouTuber and social influencer. The unseasonably chirpy yet largely unassuming 22-year-old from the Isle of Man in the UK has been making YouTube videos for around a decade – in fact, Forbes describes her as ‘one of the earliest YouTube stars’. An early video of her dancing to J-Pop went viral in Japan, after which her young fan-base exploded. Today, she predominantly vlogs (video blogs) about fashion and beauty. “I just talk to my followers,” says the young entrepreneur, who has gone on to amass over 127,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel, and “a few” across social media channels as well, she informs.
While selling merchandise is one way for social influencers to cash in on their rising stardom, Beckii advises that the easiest way for her to make money is in allowing so-called ‘pre-roll’ adverts to be automatically placed before her videos are played. “The bigger money is actually with brand integration – where the brand would come to you and ask you to incorporate their products in exchange for being paid.”
Increasingly, brands large and small are turning to such social media influencers to sell their wares. Influencers tend to be either Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) or Gen Z (born from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s) like Ms Cruel who have big online followings and who recommend products to their thousands – even millions – of followers. Some such individuals can make hundreds of thousands of pounds for each of their YouTube videos – no wonder, then, that the so-called ‘influencer economy’ is forecast to be worth in the region of £18 billion (US$26bn) by 2019.
From Wedgwood to PewDiePie
Traditional advertisers must follow a code of ethics, of course, yet social media influencers on platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine and Twitter are often selling products to young and potentially quite impressionable people – is there any such governance watchdog for them? “Absolutely,” replies Ms Cruel. “It’s the same kind of cap code [UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing] that other advertisers have. However, it’s not always been in place, so there have been a few incidences where YouTubers haven’t been disclosing their ads and they’ve actually got into a lot of trouble. But I think for the YouTuber, the trust is built with their audience – and if they don’t have that trust, then they are not going to have a career, so that’s why it’s so important to be upfront and honest with your audience.”
Celebrity endorsement has, of course, been around forever. Josiah Wedgwood – founder of the famous Wedgwood pottery line – was perhaps the earliest adopter of the strategy. He enlisted royal endorsements to create an aura around his brand that gave it a value far beyond the attributes of the product itself. Then, from 1875-1900, the trade card – often inserted in the product’s packaging – popularised celebrity endorsing. Alongside the product description, the card featured an image of the celebrity – be it a great actress or sportsman of the day – although no direct testimonial from the star. American author Mark Twain was not averse to aligning himself with products (cigars and flour), while Henry Fonda and Fred Astaire both happily puffed their way to the bank with cigarette brand endorsements.
Yet, in contrast to conventional celebrity patronage, this recent rise of the brand endorser communicating via YouTube, Twitter and Facebook is a relationship operating at a much deeper level, claims James Erskine, Director and Co-founder of Social Circle – a so-called ‘social influencer agency’. “It’s the regular content that allows for a greater relationship with the end audience. This is as close to a friend recommending something as marketing can get.”
Is it not quite cynical, though – pretending to be the consumers’ friend while flogging them stuff? “Not necessarily, says Erskine. “In the same way, my friends recommend things to me and I trust them. To these Millennial audiences, they’re talking to the communities that they are building up – it’s all based on trust, and the transparency of commercial messaging.”
Under the influence
Erskine says that he and his co-founders built Social Circle “to be a home for creators, a hub for brands”. A big part of what the firm advises is related to best practice – “It’s about being authentic, it’s about being genuine, and that means following the rules,” he tells us.
On the subject of trust, does the rise of this kind of influencer marketing stem from a distrust of mainstream media? “Kind of,” he responds. “There’s kind of a perfect storm at the moment in that there’s new regulations with GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation – Europe’s new rules on data protection, which comes into force on 25th May 2018) looking at what people can do with data, and what brands and media owners can do with data, alongside the rise in adblocking and people filtering out adverts.” In such an environment, Erskine sees social media influencers as “a really effective way for brands to get messages through”.
“We would never suggest to work with an influencer campaign in isolation, although we have seen some effective outcomes for the clients we work for,” Erskine cautions. “Rather, we’d say to keep it as part of a healthy marketing mix, although we feel the best way to reach your end-audience is with this kind of recommendation and endorsement.”
Alignment of the stars
So, how would a company, with Social Circle’s help, go about launching an influencer campaign? How do you find someone like Beckii and think ‘They are the right face’? “You look at three different factors,” advises Erskine. “Reach (have they got enough followers?), Engagement (how engaged are those followers?), and also Environment (compatibility or incompatibility) – we wouldn’t work with alcohol brands and Beckii, for example, as her audience is too young.”
Social Circle is a free platform that tracks changes in audience rise, alongside tracking which influencers are rising at “the right rate”, as Erskine puts it. The platform’s built-in Value Calculator measures engagements, while companies can deep search through the firm’s database of 50,000+ influencers – ‘from household social stars to the up-and-coming micro-influencers’, according to the website. “Alongside that, we work with creators directly, talking to them about what works best in the marketplace.”
Such social influencer agencies are big business now, says a social media executive who requested to remain anonymous. “They’re helpful. The big problem is, they don’t operate much like a traditional talent management company. They don’t provide insurance in case their talent doesn’t deliver or anything,” he opines, noting “a decrease in quality of work and too many influencers” in the mix, finally lamenting that brands nonetheless “live and die by these [social media] platforms today”. The executive depicts the influencer economy as a Wild West environment, with the real value of an influencer somewhat speculative, making pricing a guessing game. Organic reach, he suggests, is on a slippery slope. Certainly, the dawn of the aforementioned ‘micro-influencer’ – an individual with perhaps only a few hundred Instagram followers, who is paid to take wobbly promotional selfies – would suggest a change of tack by some marketeers.
How to make friends and influence people
While many a new starlet has been born on YouTube in recent years, it remains those conventionally-famous yet social media savvy stars that invariably continue to pull the biggest punches. The enormous throng of fans hoping for a glimpse into their idol’s previously hidden, offline lives means that such individuals rack up millions of followers without trying. Social influencer analytics firm Captiv8 says that someone with 3-7 million followers could charge, on average, US$187,500 for a post on YouTube, US$93,750 for a post on Facebook and US$75,000 for a post on Instagram or Snapchat.
Then there are those that operate in a different league entirely. Portuguese soccer virtuoso Cristiano Ronaldo today enjoys the biggest following of any athlete on social media – over 120.5m on Facebook, 68.9m and counting on Twitter. Endorsing a wide array of brands – everything from luxury watches (Tag Heuer) and sportswear (Nike) to telecommunications (MEO) and even industrial metals (Egyptian Steel) – has proved an insanely lucrative move for the footballer. Indeed, while FIFA’s player of the year brought home approximately US$93 million in 2017, a whopping US$35 million of that came from brand endorsements. Nice work if you can get it.